July 28, 2009

Telltale Lipstick

In her article, Branding Beauty In An Ugly Economy, Ana Paula Palombo Terzi writes that this time round, customers are confounding the Lipstick Index which has traditionally linked an increase in the purchase of lipstick with a plunging economy. Instead, she reports that Austerity Chic, where women go to greater lengths to look good for less, is leading the way instead.

Of course, this public frugality isn't confined to the buyers of beauty products. We're also seeing a shared horror of any show of wealth or foolish spending in marked contrast to the buying habits of the boom time. Whilst a certain tightening of the purse-strings is a good thing, particularly in areas where a kind of shopping madness had waltzed in, there's also a danger in our going too far with the austerity drive. At times, it reminds me of the popular Monty Python sketch where the successful Yorkshiremen vie for the most sensational rags to riches story:

First Man: 'I was happier then and I had nothin'. We used to live in this tiny old house with great big holes in the roof.'
Second Man: 'House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty six of us, no furniture, 'alf the floor was missing and we were all 'uddled together in one corner for fear of falling.'
Third Man: 'Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to live in t'corridor!'

The guilt complex that has crept into society just doesn't add up, this popular insinuation that we were all complicit in the wrong-doings of those who hung out in the corridors of high finance and power. The notion that we've been deluding ourselves for the past fifteen years is unhelpful, particularly when you consider the numbers of people who worked diligently throughout that time to build businesses and contribute to the economy. Hardworking baby is in real danger of getting thrown out with perfumed bubble bath-water. Yet many of us are going about shamefaced, as though some immense pride rather than healthy self-confidence and ambition has seen us take this particular fall.

Whilst it makes sense to be both tactful and discreet about success in an economy where people are in real difficulty, we're unlikely to dig ourselves out of the hole we're in by demonstrating how we can all do so much more with so much less. A reality check is one thing, but unless someone is able to frame a new world order in which something other than money makes the world go round, small businesses in particular will struggle to make ends meet so long as customers show a reluctance to spend.

I'm not suggesting that we slap on the lipstick but we do need to get back out into the marketplace to buy from those who offer quality goods and services at a fair price.

July 15, 2009

In The Footsteps Of Our Children

I was excited when I saw the book at the airport and eager that one of the children choose it as part of their holiday reading. They were unconvinced at first; it didn’t look like one of the more fashionable books that they’re into right now, almost inevitably one with a film tie-in, Twilight or the like. There was no breathless prose to suggest that this book just might change your life or flashy sticker boasting of the author’s string of best-sellers. This one sat there unobtrusively with its simple cover and even simpler title: I Am David by Anne Holm.

It’s probably my favourite book of them all, this story of a young boy’s escape from a concentration camp and his flight across Europe in search of home. The blurb on the jacket gives little indication of what a great story it is, but I must have read and re-read it a dozen times during my teens. Based on its appearance alone (‘A most compassionate, powerful, moving book, full of hope and tenderness’), I could understand my children’s reluctance but, in the end, persuaded my daughter Lara to include it in her choices.

On the plane journey, I found myself wondering why I felt so strongly that the kids should read my favourite book. Of course, as a parent, I’m keen to see them choosing good reading material but there was more to it than that. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched delightedly as first Louis, and then Lara, picked up the book and started to read. I tried to remember what it felt like when I first picked it up aged around eleven or twelve, envied them their first reading of it and wished I could have it over again.

Naturally, the kids picked up on my excitement. Privately, I’m sure they probably found me a little intense, and my interest a little over the top if not downright weird. But they’ve humoured me in that odd way that kids can mother their parents and have shared their own impressions of the book as they’ve made their way through it. And I’ve been thrilled to see them getting caught up in the flow of the book, just as I was some thirty years ago.

Of course, I’m not alone in wanting the children to taste something of my own childhood. My wife Christine is French, from Angers in the Loire valley, and although we typically holiday in France each year, we rarely stay in her native northwest. Instead, we travel to the same places in the south and southwest where she holidayed with her parents as a child and I see in her the same urgent excitement that our children share something of her experiences as a girl thirty years later.

We even stay in the same holiday camps, some of the scores of VVF (now Belhambra) resorts built by the French socialist governments of the ‘60’s in the conviction that every family deserved its annual holiday. Although the brand livery has changed, these camps offer the same mix of activities through their kids’ clubs as their predecessors did in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s when Christine was a girl.

Like me, she watches with delight as the kids make new friends and head off for a water-polo tournament, or rehearse as she once did for the weekly ‘spectacle’ that’s a staple feature of French holiday life. In the evenings, she likes to take her book, sit with a coffee on the terrace that fringes the various events, and catch glimpses of the children as they get caught up in their own adventures.

These are heady times for us both, as we get to relive some of our own happiness as children. This urge to share with our kids the experiences of our own childhood is a powerful driver and has prompted us to make some significant choices in how we spend our time thirty years later, whether it comes down to the simple choosing of a book or the more weighty question of holiday destination.

I’ve seen something of this at work some years ago when I helped to design and build the go!kids! holiday brand with Michael Lennon at the Westport Woods Hotel, but I’m reminded now even more forcibly of the power of this nostalgia across the generations as I live again the story of a young boy making his way across post-war Europe to find his home and watch my children happily retrace the footsteps of their mother.

Over to you: What holiday nostalgia have you seen at work for you or others around you?

July 08, 2009

Perfect Strangers

We're on holiday in France and earlier this week our neighbour spotted the tennis racquets we'd picked up for the kids and invited me to join him for a game at the nearby courts. Now, I'm no tennis-player, and thankfully what he had in mind was more of a knockabout than a real match of any sort.

We've spent the last few evenings sending the balls back and forth across the net in mostly companiable silence. We break it occasionally to congratulate when one of us hits an elegant or well-placed shot although those moments are rare and for the most part the game is played silently and in the slow-motion prompted by late afternoon heat (and not, of course, by advancing age). Nobody keeps score and that seems to suit both of us just fine although we didn’t come to any formal arrangement about it.

We did exchange names on the second evening but that’s as much as I know about my neighbour. His children have struck up friendships with mine and could probably tell me more about my new friend but I’m not especially curious. There’s something very relaxing about our impromptu game; if one of us spots the other on the terrace, we gesture towards the court and off we go. We play for an hour or so before one of us calls time, or is called for dinner. Even then, we don’t rush off but play a few last rounds just for the fun of it.

No appointments, no commitment. Perhaps it’s down in part to our limited grasp of one another’s language but I think it’s more about the lightness of a very loose and friendly, no-strings arrangement in a world that’s often very heavy on schedules, contracts and the synchronizing of watches.

Maybe as brand-owners too we can get too caught up on the idea of lifetime loyalties when sometimes our customers are simply looking for a light and friendly exchange of goods or services. Of course, it’s not just the game with my neighbour that works on an informal basis here on holidays. There’s something very refreshing about strolling down to the bakery for bread in the morning and being greeted with a friendly smile by someone I may never see again or haggling harmlessly with a street-vendor over some seaside trinket.

It seems to me as I bask here in the warm holiday glow that sometimes back at the brand-factory we’re too concerned with customer relationship management and elaborate loyalty schemes at the expense of a simple, uncomplicated and smiling exchange with an easy-come and easy-go customer.

For the next few weeks at least, I'm happy to enjoy the perfection of strangers.